Love and Perfect–Wait for it–Timing

Major spoiler alert—(insert Ted and Robin salute—Major Spoiler Alert!) If don’t want to know how the HIMYM finale  ends, stop reading.

If you’re like, What’s a bro code? Why are we suiting up? —keep reading anyway. There’s a spiritual thread here.

Faithful viewers of the long-running How I Met Your Mother have always known they were in for a multi-twisted ending. You don’t play with the space time continuum like these writers have done— weaving past, present and future together with fantasy and alternate reality—to end up with a formulaic rom-com conclusion.

Except—wait for it—that’s what they did.

I’ve been a casual fan for several years, but this season, I felt more invested. Maybe it’s been one long (and not so well-written) episode, spanning the weekend of Barney and Robin’s wedding. But still, I wanted to see how this genre-bending show—that dealt with real life heartbreak and vulnerability sometimes, even in the midst of slapstick young adult humor—would tie all of its quirky pieces together.

Maybe, like Ted, I was too focused on the destination and not the journey.

The cult fans who’ve analyzed and speculated from the beginning always wondered if the fabled “Mother” was dead; and Ted was spinning the long, winding tale of their meeting for the kids who are growing up without her. The rest of us (more casual viewers) glimpsed that potential twist a few weeks ago, when a flashback/forward scene of Ted and Traci (we finally know her name!) alluded to a future in which she may be absent. Ted’s tearfulness at certain points during that scene made me pretty sure that the future Mrs. Mosby was already the past Mrs. Mosby (in the future).

But what sealed it for me was the Bob Dylan song that played over the closing credits. As the camera panned back from the couple at the inn, and into the dark night sky, we heard strains of If you see her, say hello/ she left here last spring/ say for me that I’m alright/ though things get kind of slow…   If there’s one thing we know about this show, it’s that nothing is an accident. Even the soundtrack moves the story. So that short phrase of song spoke volumes–and also made sense of some earlier scenes, like this one.

The loyal fan base railed against the very possibility that this long-sought love might end with a death. “The writers wouldn’t do that to us!” “It would break my heart!” “That would just be cruel.” “That completely ruins the whole thing.”

But it made perfect sense. Some say that the central theme of this show was Ted’s search for love; others say it was Lily and Marshall’s ‘real’ relationship, full of heartbreak and compromise. And some say it was all about Barney’s redeeming moments—the small glimpses of humanity lurking just beneath his suited-up surface. Sure, it was about all of that. But at the heart of this show, there’s a message about time. How the thing that seems so urgent, important, impassable or even epochal right now is, ultimately, just a moment in a much broader narrative. Your life is about your WHOLE life; and your small part in a much bigger story. You can’t neatly separate your past from right now, or your ‘self’ from the people around you.  Your present does not guarantee your future, and you are not defined by your success or failure—in love, or in anything else.

In light of that message, death doesn’t ruin the story. (And that, right there, is also my Easter sermon.) This show is about the whole of Ted’s life. Finding love has little to do with ‘happily ever after,’ and everything to do with learning and growing, gratitude, and living in the moment. It took him 9 (sometimes painfully slow and awkward) seasons to learn that, but learn it he did.

Death doesn’t ruin the story. It doesn’t steal the joy of love found or moments shared. It just creates a new kind of beginning. The potential to start a new chapter and learn life-giving lessons from some new trip, or relationship, or set-back.

So, back to the finale: the camera pans back to show Ted facing his kids in the den, revealing to the audience what the kids have known all along–that’s how I met your mother, kids, but she’s not with us anymore. (Side note: why did we need Bob Saget all this time to be ‘grown-up Ted’s voice?’ Why couldn’t Ted be Ted?) And the kids say ‘that’s it, Dad? That’s not a story about mom. That’s a story about YOU.”

And in MY version of the finale, they’d go on to say, “That’s a story about you learning about yourself; you getting over your sappy romantic notions and finding that ‘real’ love often ends in heartbreak, even death…but is worth it anyway. That’s a story about being grateful for how perfect and lovely it was for a season…and knowing that, now, maybe it’s time to start all over again.”

But—wait for it—the REAL finale didn’t stop there. It added a cheap 30 second rom-com scene that shredded the very fabric of all that lovely narrative work, dissolving into a puddle of 80’s ballad sentiment. Robin? Really Ted, Robin? We love her too, but y’all are a disaster together. And for the love of all that is, please let that damn French horn rest in peace. It’s a cheap trick. 30 seconds to tie everything into the cliche primetime credit roll… I guess there was a destination to be reached after all, and it was the sidewalk in front of Robin’s apartment window.

Many fans (or former fans) will say that Thomas and Bays knew all along that the show would end with this full circle re-creation of the pilot. Maybe so. But my hunch is that, somewhere along the way, even they knew that this show wasn’t about Ted’s love life any more.  Maybe they wanted to stick the landing; end it with the revelation of the mother’s death, and some sad-ish but profound new beginning for Ted that had nothing to do with his past, and everything to do with what he learned along the way. But alas, the Ross/Rachel, Niles/Daphne, Mer/McDreamy fan vote won, and here we are; entertained, but no more human than we were 9 seasons ago. The world still wants the fairy tale.

But if death doesn’t ruin the story, then maybe even a lame ending doesn’t ruin this legendary lesson in life and love. What I will still take away from the booth at McLaren’s is this: our sense of time is subjective at best; and at worst, is terribly distorted by our humanness.

The marriage that requires a lead-in of AN ENTIRE SEASON can dissolve, literally, 5 minutes later; it can take 7 years to have 1 baby, but only 3 episodes to have 2 more; Marshall grieves his father for the span of a season, but his presence never really goes away (he shows up as the voice of love and reason in the middle of a potentially disastrous marital dispute). Lily’s dream year in Rome passes in the blink of a 5 second montage; and the slap we’ve been awaiting for almost a decade comes and goes without fanfare.

When it comes to keeping time, we are as lost and hapless as Ted. Focused on a thousand little outcomes and endgames and often missing the big picture. But the good news is that the Narrator always has a creative eye–and maybe even voiceover–for that larger story. Ultimately, whether we check out mid-season or remain tuned in for the long haul, the camera will pan back someday to reveal a full picture of our life, and not just a series of snapshots. If we are blessed enough to find love, we’d better love every minute that we can; and be fully present; and give thanks and tell lots of long stories. We are more than our finale, even if it is is not nearly as courageous an end as we’d like; and we are more than the sadness that meets us between beginnings.

Death doesn’t ruin the story. It just makes us want a better one.  Whatever the season.


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  • Barbara Dunlap

    Thank you. This is a great way to look at not only HIMYM, but also life. Best article I have read about the finale.